There are two reasons why Rishi Sunak might not know the details of Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. Either the prime minister didn’t ask, or he did, and the Tory chairman didn’t answer fully. In both scenarios, Mr Sunak looks weak. His political antennae should have been twitching at the first hint of trouble around the finances of a Conservative cabinet minister.
Mr Zahawi was chancellor, albeit very briefly. How he manages money, his dispute with HMRC and its resolution in a penalty of several million pounds are matters of public interest. So too are the threats of legal action against journalists who sought to establish the facts, indicating something short of a commitment to transparency and accountability.
Mr Sunak should not have to refer the issue to an ethics adviser when considering whether to keep Mr Zahawi in his post. It is ultimately a question of political judgment. Crude self-interest should have spurred the prime minister to action. In parliament on Wednesday he even acknowledged that efficient resolution would be “the politically expedient thing to do”, but sought instead to cast equivocation as leadership, and incuriosity as a point of principle.
This badly misjudges the nature of Mr Sunak’s predicament. His first pledge on entering Downing Street was “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of government”. Implicit in that declaration was a repudiation of habits that degraded Downing Street when Liz Truss and Boris Johnson were in occupancy – the parade of arrogance, shamelessness, complacency and venality that brought UK politics into disrepute and sent the Conservative party poll rating into freefall.
To reverse that trend, Mr Sunak needed to demand the very highest standards of his ministers and be seen to be ruthless in their enforcement. It is a test he has already failed. One explanation for his hesitancy might be squeamishness around questions of personal taxation and private fortunes.
Mr Sunak had a relatively smooth ascent through the Conservative ranks until reports about his wife’s non-domiciled status caused turbulence. He handled it badly, coming across as peevish and defensive, when the situation required candour and humility. He acted as if legitimate questions about his finances were an egregious invasion of his privacy.
Now it is a cabinet minister whose tax affairs are in the spotlight, and the prime minister treats the expectation of transparency as an affront to justice and due process. It is not clear what discovery he expects his ethics adviser to make that might magic away facts that are already known: the penalty levied for non-payment of taxes, and the steps taken by Mr Zahawi to impede scrutiny of his record.
Mr Sunak’s knowledge of the case has, by his own admission, changed since last week. He used to believe there was nothing to investigate. Now he sees that there is, because “more information” has come to light, but he cannot say what question he thinks still needs answering, nor is it obvious why he can’t summon the Tory chair and pose it himself.
The prime minister finds himself in a political hole, and his response is a plea for time to do more digging. “Trust is earned, and I will earn yours,” he told the nation when he was first appointed. But instead of building reserves of public confidence, Mr Sunak seems determined to squander what little he already has.